In its positive sense, the word is used of kindness or love between people, of piety of people towards God as well as of love or mercy of God towards humanity. It is frequently used in Psalms in the latter sense, where it is traditionally translated "lovingkindness" in English translations.
In Jewish theology it is likewise used of God's love for the Children of Israel, and in Jewish ethics it is used for love or charity between people. Chesed in this latter sense of "charity" is considered a virtue on its own, and also for its contribution to tikkun olam (repairing the world). It is also considered the foundation of many religious commandments practiced by traditional Jews, especially interpersonal commandments.
The root chasad has a primary meaning of "eager and ardent desire", used both in the sense "good, kind" and "shame, contempt". The noun chesed inherits both senses, on one hand "zeal, love, kindness towards someone" and on the other "zeal, ardour against someone; envy, reproach". In its positive is used of mutual benevolence, mercy or pity between people, of piety of people towards God, as well as grace, favour or mercy of God towards people.
It occurs 248 times in the Hebrew Bible. In the majority of cases (149 times), the King James Bible translation is "mercy", following LXX eleos. Less frequent translations are: "kindness" (40 times), "lovingkindness" (30 times), "goodness" (12 times), "kindly" (5 times), "merciful" (4 times), "favour" (3 times) and "good", "goodliness", "pity" (once each). Only two instances of the noun in its negative sense are in the text, translated "reproach" in Psalm 57:3, and "wicked thing" in Leviticus 20:17.
The translation of loving kindness in KJV is derived from the Coverdale Bible of 1535. This particular translation is used exclusively of chesed used of the benign attitude of YHWH ("the LORD") or Elohim ("God") towards his chosen, primarily invoked in Psalms (23 times), but also in the prophets, four times in Jeremiah, twice in Isaiah 63:7 and once in Hosea 2:19. While "lovingkindness" is now considered somewhat archaic, it is part of the traditional rendition of Psalms in English Bible translations. Some more recent translations use "steadfast love" where KJV has "lovingkindness".
The Septuagint has mega eleos "great mercy", rendered as Latin misericordia. As an example of the use of chesed in Psalms, consider its notable occurrence at the beginning of Psalm 51 ( , lit. "be favourable to me, Elohim, as your chesed"):
? ? ? ? ? (LXX)
Miserere mei, Deus, secundum misericordiam tuam (Vulgate)
"God, haue thou merci on me; bi thi greet merci." (Wycliffe 1388)
"Haue mercy vpon me (o God) after thy goodnes" (Coverdale Bible 1535)
"Haue mercie vpon mee, O God, according to thy louing kindnesse" (KJV 1611)
"Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness" (KJV 1769, RV 1885, ASV 1901)
"Favour me, O God, according to Thy kindness" (YLT 1862)
"Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy steadfast love" (RSV 1952)
"Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love" (NRSV 1989)
In Judaism, "love" is often used as a shorter English translation. Political theorist Daniel Elazar has suggested that "chesed" cannot easily be translated into English, but that it means something like "loving covenant obligation". Other suggestions include "grace" and "compassion".
In traditional musar literature (ethical literature), chesed is one of the primary virtues. The tannaic rabbi Simon the Just taught: "The world rests upon three things: Torah, service to God, and bestowing kindness" (Pirkei Avot 1:2). Chesed is here the core ethical virtue.
A statement by Rabbi Simlai in the Talmud claims that "The Torah begins with chesed and ends with chesed." This may be understood to mean that "the entire Torah is characterized by chesed, i.e. it sets forth a vision of the ideal life whose goals are behavior characterized by mercy and compassion." Alternatively, it may allude to the idea that the giving of the Torah itself is the quintessential act of chesed.
A person who embodies chesed is known as a chasid (hasid, ?), one who is faithful to the covenant and who goes "above and beyond that which is normally required" and a number of groups throughout Jewish history which focus on going "above and beyond" have called themselves chasidim. These groups include the Hasideans of the Second Temple period, the Maimonidean Hasidim of medieval Egypt and Palestine, the Chassidei Ashkenaz in medieval Europe, and the Hasidic movement which emerged in eighteenth century Eastern Europe.
In Modern Hebrew, can take the generic meaning of "charity", and a "chesed institution" in modern Judaism may refer to any charitable organization run by religious Jewish groups or individuals. Charitable organizations described as "chesed institutions" include:
The first three of the ten sephirot are the attributes of the intellect, while chesed is the first sephira of the attribute of action. In the kabbalistic Tree of life, its position is below Chokhmah, across from Gevurah and above Netzach. It is usually given four paths: to chokhmah, gevurah, tiphereth, and netzach (some Kabbalists place a path from chesed to binah as well.)
The Bahir states, "What is the fourth (utterance): The fourth is the righteousness of God, His mercies and kindness with the entire world. This is the right hand of God." Chesed manifests God's absolute, unlimited benevolence and kindness.
[Although] The word 'lovingkindness'...is archaic, [it is] not far from the fullness of meaning of the word [chesed or hesed].
The Hebrew hesed (plural hasadim) is usually translated as "grace" or "loving-kindness", but sometimes also as "mercy" or "love".